(This article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Only 28 years old, Camari Mick, Executive Pastry Chef at the Michelin-starred Musket Room in New York City, was nominated for the 2022 Outstanding Pastry Chef James Beard Award. The combination of this nomination and her job title constitute professional success that most in the industry will never achieve, let alone before the age of 30. But although Mick has been in the industry for a comparatively brief ten years, she was 12 years old when she began to bake, and this early experience gave a boost to her seemingly meteoric rise. While her mother and father were talented home cooks and consistently fed their young daughter palate pleasing meals, their culinary skills did not include baking or pastry making. Says Mick, “I was always wanting something sweet after dinner, like ‘Mom can we do that?’ My parents were great cooks, they are still good cooks, but they cannot bake to save their lives. So, my mom and I started baking together, and then I got really good at it. By the time I was in high school, I started bringing baked goods in and selling them – the teachers would buy them from me.”
Despite her early success, Chef Mick was not deterred from her academic studies. In fact, when her parents sat down with her to discuss her career future, it was they who suggested that she pursue baking and pastry. Her initial plan was to become a forensic pathologist. Says Mick, “That’s why I listen to True Crime podcast now. I am a crime junkie.” But her father persisted, saying ‘You know, if you love what you’re doing you will never feel like you are working. And for you to find this very young, that’s a blessing.’ After thinking it over, Chef Mick determined that she’d rather not pursue forensic pathology, and instead started looking at culinary schools. She decided to attend The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia, earning a bachelor’s degree. Since matriculating, she has worked at well known industry hotspots such as Morimoto in Philadelphia, Ventuno in Nantucket, and Le Bernardin in New York City.
I would never want anyone to appropriate my culture for their benefit. So I try to honor cultures and traditions in a proper way and never be disrespectful, especially when I’m learning.
During the COVID pandemic, once successful bakeries and restaurants have had to close their doors, and many workers have chosen to leave the culinary field, changing careers to make ends meet. However, in Chef Mick’s case, COVID actually helped propel her to her current level of success. “The pandemic started and and I started my Instagram. Anybody who wanted to buy my donuts, I would deliver them on my bike. They would just tell me where, mostly in Brooklyn, because I was living there at the time.” In 2020 Chef Mick participated in a pop-up series focused on black entrepreneurs at Manhattan’s Mason Yaki, and her popularity continued to grow. “I got a loyal customer base. I tried to keep the momentum – donuts on my Instagram, things that I would want to eat. People would just buy them.” Jennifer Vitagliano is The Musket Room’s owner, but it was her sister Nicole who placed an order for Camari’s donuts. “She was trying to be, like, incognito, you know?” A week later, Chef Mick got an email from them saying ‘We loved your stuff. Are you interested in coming in for an interview?’
The rest is history. Initially a part of their resoundingly successful pandemic-era food truck initiative (which offered items ranging from caviar and potato chips to guava cream cheese donuts), Mick has been instrumental in the restaurant’s move away from New Orleans as a primary culinary focus for the restaurant. “They decided to branch out in terms of the cultures they were representing. We switched to being a more global-inspired restaurant.” The Musket Room now bases its menu on Japanese, French, Indian, Southern American and Lebanese cuisines. Because Chef Mick has worked within and respects a range of culinary traditions, she is adept at combining flavors and textures in surprising and appealing ways. For example, she makes a spiced diplomat cream using what she calls her Christmas spices – cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, black pepper, and small chunks of fresh ginger that she brings to a boil in cream and then let’s chill overnight. To add a welcome flavor dimension to cake batters and roasted fruits, she relies on the renowned Lior Lev Sercarz’s spice mixes, sourced with small farmers and sold at La Boîte in the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan. Chef Mick’s latest invention is an unusual presentation of kulfi. Her kulfi conception involves freezing the kulfi in circles, slicing the circles in half, and then coating the halves in liquid vanilla shortbread before refreezing them. The shortbread coating has a pleasing soft texture that doesn’t change much once the kulfi sections are re-frozen. Says Mick, who is of Jamaican heritage, “It’s nice to be able to express myself differently using different cuisines. I would never want anyone to appropriate my culture for their benefit. So I try to honor cultures and traditions in a proper way and never be disrespectful, especially when I’m learning.”
Mick is currently planning a chocolate tasting at bean-to-bar maker One:One Cacao in Jamaica, using exclusively Jamaican chocolate that is made from beans grown across the island on heirloom trees and processed in small batches. “Each part of the chocolate tasting is going to be a different form of chocolate, so I’m gonna use the nib, cocoa powder and the chocolate itself. I’m trying to get away from the larger chocolate companies that everybody uses. I still use [their chocolate] sometimes, just because it’s easy and accessible. But, you know, it’s time that we support people who are doing it right and paying their employees properly. My dad is Jamaican and it’s nice to see that smile this brings to his face when I’m celebrating my heritage, which is his heritage. Maybe promoting this will inspire others to do similar changes.” Chef Mick has finalized plans for two of the three presentations: the nib will be represented by a piece of coffee chocolate babka and the chocolate itself will present in the form of a semifreddo wrapped in plantain. As for the cocoa powder, she’s considering a piece of chocolate rum cake, a Mick family favorite.
My one philosophy when making vegan food is I don’t want it to be ‘Oh, this is good enough because it’s vegan’. I want it to be a plus for it to be vegan.
Broadening the cultural reach of the menu has only been part of Chef Mick’s dedication to challenging industry norms; she and the entire team at the woman-owned and run Musket Room work hard to communicate respectfully, with no exceptions. The overt verbal aggression that is often displayed on television cooking shows happens to be commonplace in some restaurants. “I personally have been in situations where I didn’t feel safe as a woman, or as a black woman,” says Mick. “I’ve been put in positions where I’ve been called ebony. Just overall comments and action from higher-ups. And one thing is, I want to make sure nobody has to go through that. And know that we don’t have to accept that anymore. I want to make sure everybody is treated with respect. Let’s make sure we’re working together.” Chef Mick likes to check in with people working under her on a regular basis to see how they are feeling in general, and if they are satisfied with their position. If any of her staff feel they have a concern they can’t share with her, they are encouraged to bring it to Executive Chef Mary Attea, and if they don’t feel comfortable with Chef Attea, they can bring it to the owner, Jennifer Vitagliano. “I try to be the boss I needed.”
Mick’s dedication to inclusion isn’t limited to cooking with flavor profiles from varied cultures and making sure all her staff are respected at work. She is also dedicated to including plant-based desserts in her repertoire. The Musket Room offers a tasting menu for vegans (as well as one for omnivores), and Chef Mick is adept at creating baked goods and desserts that stand out because of their taste and texture, not simply because they contain no animal products. Her vegan pavlova is pleasing both to eye and palate; she uses cream made from faba beans and flavored with pink peppercorns along side quince purée, passion fruit granita, and cara cara oranges. “We have come a long way with a lot of vegan products. It’s just being creative – you have to know how to make things work, and maybe you can make something out of nothing. My one philosophy when making vegan food is I don’t want it to be ‘Oh, this is good enough because it’s vegan’. I want it to be a plus for it to be vegan.” As with the combination of cultural inflections in her dishes and communication with her team, Chef Mick is always thoughtful when creating a vegan dish because she knows that a careless process can yield unsatisfying results. Her suggestion to people who are not experienced vegan bakers is they plan their vegan dishes carefully with a step-by-step creative process. “So, butter is not vegan. We need to change this out for another fat. We can use coconut oil or we could use another oil. Then we have to think about how does that affect our batter? So maybe use a combination…And, like, keep going forward. You know, how can I replace eggs? Bananas replace eggs, because it’s a binder. It gets very science-y and I find that to be fun.”
I personally have been in situations where I didn’t feel safe as a woman, or as a black woman… And one thing is, I want to make sure nobody has to go through that. And know that we don’t have to accept that any more. I want to make sure everybody is treated with respect. Let’s make sure we’re working together.
There wasn’t always room in Mick’s schedule for much more than work, but she is now scrupulous about disconnecting from work on weekends and spending time on exercise, art and family. “I run and I meditate; I also hang out with my nephews. I paint and I roller-skate; they’re a few of my hobbies.” She advises that people considering a career in pastry arts engage in scrupulous research. “Really ask yourself, ‘Do you want to do this?’ The first thing you should do is do your research. Think about the avenue in the industry that you want. Do you want to work for a hotel? Do you want to work in a restaurant? Do you want to work in a café? Do you want to be in an A.M. situation, or a P.M. situation? You need to ask yourself these things in order to find the right position for yourself. Do you want to work on the line as a plater? And once you find that answer, find a restaurant or a bakery and ask to work with them for a week to see what they do and how they do it. And it’s not worst thing in the world to work for free to just see if you like the industry before you drop thousands of dollars on an education.” According to Chef Mick, beginning pastry chefs and bakers might want to be prepared to look hard for a position with a schedule that makes work-life balance possible to achieve. “To be honest, when I was working 12-hour days, I was miserable and, you know, coming home crying every night to my boyfriend. It was absolutely terrible.” Despite the difficulties, she persisted. “Now I’m in an environment where I’m able to grow not only as a pastry chef, but also as a manager. It is down from the top – Jen and Mary are great, so I can be great.”